Reaching for the sky

Junkers Ju 52

  • TEXT MARC BIELEFELD

He developed some of the world’s first passenger aircraft and later built the legendary Ju 52: The German inventor Hugo Junkers was a visionary and a pioneer who is widely acknowledged as the father of civil aviation. Some of his patents deserve a nod of respect from airplane passengers to this day

Few people have left such a legacy of numbers. Such a veritable mountain, one could say. Each six-digit series designates a patent that the brilliant engineer received for his inventions – a total of 415.

Hugo Junkers

Berlin-Tempelhof Airport, 1928: A Luft Hansa omnibus collects nine passengers from the Junkers G 24. The airplane had an already impressive range of around 1,000 kilometers and was capable of flying at night

© Deutsche Lufthansa AG

 Some patents still deserve a nod of respect from airline passengers because the ideas they contain formed the cornerstone of civil aviation. Like German patent No. 253 788 dated February 1, 1910 for a “Flying machine with a hollow shell to hold elements not used for propulsion.” The first metal aircraft were constructed on the basis of this patent. As were aircraft wings, no longer overstretched with fabric, but sturdy enough to accommodate tanks and bear the weight of kerosene.

We probably wouldn’t be sitting in modern aircraft as we know them if it hadn’t been for patents Nos 313 692 and 337 522, either. These represent the first concept of the self-bearing and the corrugated sheet metal wing. Both inventions revolutionized the aerodynamic properties, structural strength and static stability of aircraft.

The source of these technical breakthroughs was Hugo Junkers, one of the most important engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs of the 20th century. He was a dedicated innovator and allrounder, a continuous font of new ideas. He was born on February 3, 1859 in the small town of Rheydt in Germany’s Rhineland region. Many of his ideas and developments are still with us today because they paved the way for the modern world.

Hugo Junkers

Service worldwide: For international flights, Junkers aircraft were equipped early on with pontoon floats for water landings

© Deutsche Lufthansa AG
Hugo Junkers

Proud of their achievements: The altitude-record breaking crew of the F 15 in 1919 – a flying success for Hugo Junkers

© akg-images
Hugo Junkers

The F 13 developed by Junkers was a plane unlike any the world had ever seen: It had a heated cabin and padded or wicker seats on which up to four passengers could sit comfortably during the flight

© Deutsche Lufthansa AG
Hugo Junkers

The Ju G 38 was a flying hotel: Passengers enjoyed a luxury service similar to what was being offered on airships

© Deutsche Lufthansa AG
Hugo Junkers

The Ju G 31 was assembled at a factory in Dessau. It could carry up to 16 passengers, and was in service for Luft Hansa on routes to London, Paris or Vienna from Berlin

© GettyImages
Hugo Junkers


In the 1930s: Passengers prepare to take off ...

© Deutsche Lufthansa AG
Hugo Junkers


... on board a Deutsche Lufthansa Junkers Ju 52

© Deutsche Lufthansa AG

 As a young man, Junkers studied mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and thermodynamics first in Karlsruhe, then in Aachen, before taking a job in his chosen field. A photo dating from 1878 shows him proudly sporting a suit of fine cloth and a tie, his hair combed severely back from a middle parting – his moustache carefully groomed and twirled.

Before long, Junkers had filed his first patent, but it had nothing to do with flying. The engineer developed high-pressure air compressors, double-piston engines and boilers. The mountain of patents grew and grew. Gas circulators, radiators, compound gas engines – he deliberated, drew and designed things night and day. You could say the man was a living invention machine.

In 1908, having become a successful businessman, Hugo discovered aerodynamics. At a research center he constructed his first propellers or airscrews, as they were known back then, oversaw the building of wind tunnels, worked on new wing profiles and devised the “flying wing.” This was a hollow, aerodynamic shell with special strutting that made it strong enough to eventually carry engines. The world‘s first all-metal airplane, the J 1, took to the air in 1915. From then on, one record followed the next and in 1919, the famous F 13 celebrated its maiden flight. This plane could seat four passengers in a heated cabin and flew at an altitude of 6,750 meters. Very soon, 322 F 13s were in operation around the world, marking the dawn of civil aviation and the birth of the commercial airline.

Hugo Junkers

Pictures from the past: A Ju G 38 in flight, only two of these models were ever built

© INTERFOTO

 More and more airplane models, each one more advanced the last, rolled out of Junkers’ aircraft and engine production facilities. And nearly every one was a milestone in terms of safety, range or comfort. The name Junkers became synonymous with the success of civil aviation. Who, after all, has not heard of the famous Ju 52 “Auntie Ju” or Iron Annie, one of the world’s most frequently flown commercial aircraft in the 1930s? A piece of living history, a Ju 52 is still in service at the Deutsche Lufthansa Berlin Foundation.

Hugo Junkers was a great visionary and a man of action. He initiated new developments, motivating other engineers. He started a teaching workshop and actually achieved things others only dreamed of. It is certainly no exaggeration to describe him as the “father of passenger flight,” considering that it was Junkers-Luftverkehr AG, the airline he founded, which merged with Deutsche AeroLloyd in 1926 to become Luft Hansa. And that, as we all know, was the beginning of an enduring success story.

Hugo Junkers saw no limits

But Hugo Junkers was a man ahead of his time. “There are no limits to what a commercial aviation fleet could achieve,” he once said. “Such a fleet is destined to foster good relations between nations.” Opening up new dimensions, going new ways; this seemed to come naturally to him. He possessed the characteristics that define a brilliant designer: the ability to reflect, to change tack, to think laterally – and to create something new.

His lists of achievements is virtually endless. He set up companies outside Germany, tested rocket engines and also promoted aerial photography, which enabled great strides in surveying and cartography. He developed increasingly powerful engines, opened a museum of technical progress in Dessau and even became involved with steel construction. But most of all, Hugo Junkers burned with a passion for flying. His airplanes set distance records and payload records; and in 1929, a Junkers W 34 reached the impressive cruising height of 12,729 meters – a pioneering feat!

The Nazis wanted fighter planes from Junkers

Hugo Junkers‘ career ended abruptly when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and ruthlessly proceeded to requisition his factories to build armaments. To the democrat and cosmopolitan, aviation was solely a peaceful enterprise, and he attempted to prevent this takeover – sadly to no avail. His family were taken into “protective custody” and Junkers himself retired to Bavaria, where he lived under house arrest. From then on, his factories turned out only fighter planes.

Junkers’ countless patents testify to his passion. His esthetic drawings of wing profiles, fuselages and propellers became ground-breaking chapters in the history of flying. Otto Junkers died in 1935 at the age of 76. Icarus is engraved on his headstone in a cemetery near Munich, and underneath is the inscription: Closer to the eagle, closer to the sun, closer to the stars. These words would surely have pleased the master engineer who, in life, reached constantly for the sky.